Friday, January 22, 2010

Bad art, discussion 2

Here are some criteria for judging whether a work of art is bad (it leads ultimately to the paradox that some bad art is better at being bad art than other bad art- i.e. "this is the best bit of bad art I've ever seen). I shall concentrate on painting, sometime venturing into other media for the hell of it.

1. Technical failure. The work cannot be seen. A film that has not been processed. It is disintegrating, toxic and will cause ill-health. It is a painting that is falling apart. Jackson's Pollock's work falls into this category.* A good work of art is not generally going to kill you or destroy itself or anything else (firework displays being an exception and of course some art is necessarily organic, such as garden design).

2. Technical failure. There are failures of execution which marr appreciation of the art piece: the paint is fugitive, the sound has gone, the record is so muffled it is unlistenable. Now, of course, some appreciate the crackles on old 78rpm records, and the cracks in varnish. This leads onto the question of what we should be appreciating. It wasn't the intention of Rembrandt, for instance, that we should like his work partly because of the yellowy varnish surfaces, or Fats Waller because the recordings have that muffled sound. Does that matter to anyone other than restorers?

3. Technical failure in execution. In painting, discernable errors in drawing, description of items, colours, tones etc. These are usually identifiable if the artist is obviously part of a school. If the artist is very "over there", it's hard to know how to judge: David Hume knows, however.**

4. Lapses in taste: ugly. Paintings with horrible colours, instruments out of tune. Lack of understanding of overall composition: imbalance, inharmonious. Ill matching colours, lack of sensitivity: a subjective category.

5. Lapses in taste: disgust. Can a painting of a turd be a masterpiece? As a Robert Crumb fan I hover in uncertainty. Salvador Dali attempted to make work that appalled the viewer- he is regarded with suspicion by critics but has mass appeal (apart from his Civil War paintings, where the sense of disgust has an obviously moral aim). Orwell does an excellent job on this unpleasant artist***

6. Lapses in Judgement: ethics. Is it possible to make a great, openly racist work of art? Norman Rockwell made some anti-racist art which is horribly patronising (but then, condescension was his forte). Generally negative sentiments translate uncomfortably into art. It's surprising how few works of art offer negative criticism of the ethical or political views of another group (political cartoons are another story). Books can do this more effectively, but there is always the risk that we start to feel sorry for the victim, because to be effective, a characterisation has to be built on an artists capacity for sympathy for his subject- good or ill.

The patriotism of other nationalities is remarkably irritating: American patriotism particularly so (or is that just me?- I think it's the sheer bone-headedness behind it- I've had conversations with Americans in which they plainly believe they were solely responsible for victory in Europe 1945, as if the Russian contribution was some sort of irrelevant sideshow. They also believe they invented television, the dolts****).

7. Too sexy. Porno is out. Even beautifully made porno images are out. I think this is because sexual stimulation denies reflective mental processes. I'm not against anyone beating the bishop or paddling the pink canoe but endowing those instincts with profundity is mere foolishness (see the abuse of dairy products in "Last Tango in Paris").

8. Moronism: the subject. The picture transmits stupidity. This is one of the defining qualities of the Daily Painters work (see yesterday). Stupidity is incuriousity: lack of interest in the subject : we get, slavish copies of snapshots. We also get subject matter that has an obvious quality- a tourist landmark, a thing that is already considered beautiful (paintings of roses are necessarily beautiful), it is a significant person, a significant place. It is a significant moment (paintings made from graduation photos), or even a combination of the three- a significant person in a significant moment in a significant place (!).

But the significant moment is always a positive, tasteful one. There are no paintings of the significant moment when grandmother drove her car off the cliff, or your sister’s appearance in court testifying against her ex-husband on battery charges, or, "my first amputation". This marks one of the differences between serious art and popular, which is that popular is so circumspect- it refuses to examine anything that might be a potential source of discovery or self-knowledge. It mollifies (there is an exception to this in the form of popular Catholic Votive paintings, which often feature sick people or people involved in tragedies).

9. Moronism: the medium. The medium is used uninventively, without delight. This is one of those "you can't define it but you know it when you see it" qualities: a superlative painter like Magritte used oil paint in the 20s with a deliberate heaviness, taken from commercial art. Again, see yesterday's Daily Painters.

10. Cliche.

11. Banality. The picture is unable to excite the emotions. Being sensibly brought up I was taught never to dismiss things as "boring", because usually that was merely an indication of my lack of energy or discipline in making the necessary effort to get into the book, film or conversation. Boring means lack of surprises and of emotional engagement. Looking at Daily Painters, I wonder, "why they are doing this thing?" I can detect no strong interest in anything: this is dispiriting. It suggests that for the Daily Painters art exists primarily as an activity to fill up remaining time before death (I think here of Bartlebooth, Perec's watercolourist hero, in "Life A User's Manual").

There's an argument here about alienation and capitalism a la Greenberg (see his wonderful essay on Kitsch*****). I think the argument is that the workers are so alienated from their labour that they are unable to spontaneously create anything, and even unconsciously seek to transform freely creative activities such as painting into a routinous line work, in which a certain amount has to be done each day for presentation to the line manager (in the case of Daily Painters, the electronic site host).


*When I was 16 I was taken to the Kroller-Muller Institute in Holland by a colleague of my father's. My companion, a jolly Dutch woman, and I were discussing modern art, and it's value. Frustrated with my refusal to accept that it was all rubbish, and to indicate her disgust with Jackson Pollock in particular, to my horror she stretched her arm towards the Pollock painting in front of us, broke a piece off it and stuffed it in my pocket. The piece was about half a centimetre across.

I told this story to a friend of mine, and he said he'd had exactly the same experience with another person.



**** John Logie Baird, UK, 1925.



  1. Very good - "Last Tango" yeah - the butter bit was a bit much (the "repeat after me" bit was funny though, I thought) - but the last scene with the gum is one of my favorite death scenes in a movie.
    Dali became a poseur and hack when he could have become a great painter - unfortunately his personality took the easy way out. What did Breton call him "Avida Dollars"?

    Due to mass culture and the perversity of my nature I sometimes prefer the Bad over the Good: Bandinelli over Michelangelo

  2. That bit of the Pollock... whatever happened to it? Did you ever think of creating a few more bits and starting a nice line in pseudo art-ifacts?

  3. Good question- I was quite appalled. I seem to remember that when we left the museum it remained in the bottom of a certain coat pocket for some weeks after: I felt too appalled to know what to do with it.

    Eventually, however, think I just chucked it out ("the evidence") and with it my guilt-by-asociation.